The Precepts: Our Refuge, Our Goal, Our Realization of Truth
Ozmo Piedmont, PhD
It is amazing how truth can be found everywhere and in every experience. I was ill recently with a severe flu, thinking that the symptoms would soon diminish through bed rest and quiet. But instead, for several days I lay in bed suffering all the physical symptoms of high fever, chills, loss of appetite, aches and pains, headaches, confusion and fear. I had no energy to either move or go to the doctor. However, this illness was a teacher.
In the midst of the chills and fever, I could see my negative karma from an entire lifetime appear before me. I could see choices I had made that had caused my own and others’ suffering. I felt a deep sadness and regret for what had passed. Along with this regret was a self criticism, a fear that I was not good enough, I had somehow failed in reaching some goal of spiritual perfection. However, in seeing this criticism of myself, I could also see that I had often criticized others, that I was judging them in subtle ways that lowered them in my eyes, putting myself in a delusional sense of superiority. At that moment, something clicked, since I remembered that two of the precepts had to do with not criticizing others, “Do not speak against others” and “Do not proud of yourself and devalue others.” These precepts are not just rules to be followed, but are actually a key to removing the obstacles that keep us bound to the Wheel of suffering and samsara. Buddha mentions five obstacles that keep us from realizing the Truth of who we really are: 1. sense desire or greed, 2. ill will, 3. laziness, 4. restless or worry, and 5. doubt. In criticizing others, I participate in three of the obstacles: 1. I am engaging in ill will towards others, 2. I am manifesting fear and worry as I compare myself to others, and 3. I express doubt about myself through an insecurity that seeks to elevate little self over and above others. In criticizing others, I am essentially criticizing myself, and in so doing, I am judging myself, seeing myself as inferior and undeserving. And it is this judging that keeps me from being free. If, on the other hand, I can let go of criticism, I can begin to see the perfection that is always there.
At this point of my illness, I was beginning to feel my life energy slipping away, and I could see my ego structure as an empty construct of ideas and concepts, beliefs and fears that were loosely held together in a belief of a limited, constricted sense of little self based on fear, doubt and confusion. There was now only a very thin transparent film separating this little self from death. I wondered if it had all been worth it. There was a part of me that needed to decide whether I should just let go, since I was feeling so much physical pain, and just slip into oblivion, or whether I should continue to fight to hold on to this life. I consciously decided that this was not the time to leave, that there was still much work to be done. But if I was to remain, I needed to find a reason beyond thought. I needed to know the Truth of who I am. As my fever and flu increased, I felt this little construct of personality begin to collapse, no longer able to function, seeing the collection of ideas and constructs fall away, and feeling doubts, fears and anxieties to rise up, as if Mara were challenging all that I thought I knew. Although I had physically nothing to show for it, I needed to find the value of a lifetime of dedication and practice. I resolved to stay conscious, to invite in all the fears, to discuss with Mara all the doubts arising, and to find the Truth. All my book learning and theories were empty, and doubt began to overwhelm me that all was an error, my life had been a waste, and I doubted if there was anything at all, whether there was anything as true peace or Divinity. At my lowest point, I had to admit that I knew nothing, was nothing, and that I had nothing to give. Nevertheless, an extraordinary realization began to dawn in me. I realized that “nothing” was not all that bad, in fact, it was comforting. Perhaps nothing is the whole point, the emptiness of the Unborn is found in the spaciousness of no thought, no concept, and no construct. I knew I had truly committed my life to meditation, spiritual practice, and dedication to the precepts. What I had to admit is that the ego, and all its thoughts, is not real, just an empty shell. I could see that shell was now beginning to fade, draining away its energy, strength, and ambition. I could no longer rely on any thing that I had read or thought of as being true, since this was in the realm of ego thought constructs which seemed to fall away with the collapse of the ego.
At this point, I literally offered my life up to the Divine in faith, trusting that perhaps my sense of loss and regret was merely an aspect of ego, and therefore not the Truth of who I am. Although I had nothing at all to show for it, in the end, if this were my last breath, I offered up this life of practice and spiritual effort to the Divine and I asked for help. I could truly say I had done my best. But to whom was I offering? And what was being offered? This is when I began to see the meaning of emptiness. The only thing I could definitely know was that all is empty, spacious, and infinite in its limitlessness. Here there are no ideas, no theories, there just is That, pure in its emptiness, neither needing anything nor requiring anything of me. I began to understand that the practice based upon the precepts is inherently complete and real. Each time I choose to follow the teachings of the precepts, I am choosing to align myself with Buddha, and that Buddha Nature is inherently empty, pure, Immaculate. There was a great comfort in acknowledging the spaciousness of nothingness, a surrendering to the Infinite that is always complete and whole, beyond emotion and thought, embracing all that arises, and to which all returns.
I began to have a vision of the entire universe opening before me, and although I was conscious and still individual, I felt myself merging into and becoming one with the universe. I could see infinite stars and galaxies spreading out before me, and I was a part of them. I was beyond emotions of feeling good or happy. It was just an awareness of the way things are. We are both the One, and we are individual. I could also see that my regrets, doubts and fears, criticisms, and angers, were all limits that got in the way of seeing the purity and spaciousness of who I am. Yet, I had a sense of trust in the Truth of the Infinite, that all was for the good, that the purity and perfection of Buddha Nature does not depend on any state of mind, nor on any feeling of happiness, goodness or even peace. It is much more than that, it is a knowing that we are essentially this emptiness, complete and perfect just as we are. I realized that by holding on to the Precepts, by not buying into the karma of negative choices, regrets and doubts, to realize I am not those limits I had believed myself to be, by choosing in every act to follow the precepts, then I am choosing to live freely, I am choosing to be that spaciousness, no longer blocked by ideas of right and wrong, nor emotions or regrets. That although I must live with the consequences of my actions, I can still be free, knowing that the precepts are the living Buddha, and that Buddha-ness fully expresses itself in this life as I choose to follow the precepts, I become clear, I am the Truth of emptiness, as the sky is the Truth of emptiness that is never diminished by the clouds of feeling, emotions, and the thoughts that pass through it. The precepts are Life itself.
I now could understand Truth on several levels. I am both this individual consciousness that is One with the Eternal consciousness, that there is nothing that is ever lost, that death truly has no hold on us, because death of the ego and the body is not the death of who I really am, this Consciousness that is not based on anything, which is eternal, which has no beginning and no ending. It is beyond all emotions or states. It simply IS, and although the body and even the mind do end, Conscious IS, and it is eternal. Every time I choose to live according to the Precepts, I am waking up to Consciousness within the Emptiness, and that is beyond words or concepts, which just IS.
At the point I began to take medications for the flu, I felt the vital life force rush into my body and cells, as if the door to a prison cell had just opened, allowing sunshine and clean air to wrap themselves around me. The little imprisoned self was now free to function as it does normally. I felt appreciation for the little self, the ego, to do what it does, like a computer that processes information and keeps things organized. I could see now that the awareness of spaciousness could be trusted beyond all states of the little mind. In fact, the mind and the ego are perfect just as they are. They are wonderful tools that allow us to practice and meditate, that it is because we can use the body and we can choose to practice that we can experience in the here and now our Illumination. How beautiful and perfect are ego and body. There is no need to eliminate anything. All is a part of the Eternal, and all is participating in the practice of applying the precepts, which is Buddha himself, the conscious choosing to align with That in every moment. Therefore, although the ego is a construct, it is a wonderful construct that expresses the Infinite when we continually choose to sit and not do, when we continually refrain from the negative patterns of karma, and we continually choose to act as Buddha, we then become Buddha, continually discovering in ever deeper and deeper ways what that means. The Precepts are both our map as well as the goal, the body of Buddha manifesting in our consciousness. Our lives become an act of Grace, appreciation, and surrendering to that Immaculacy.
For some reason my karma is such that illness and physical challenges have been a gateway to the Unborn. It is enough to know the Unborn. All that life teaches, in whatever form, through whatever karma, is a blessing. I bow down to the Infinite wisdom, and feel deepest gratitude for the insights and understanding that come through this experience of life and the application of the Precepts.